The most important lesson I learnt from my postdoc career up until now is that there is no best lab nor best mentor…
I cannot believe a whole year has gone by since lockdown last March. All of a sudden, non-essential should work from home and only essential workers – or those working on COVID-19 – were allowed to come to work. It became an isolated year. My coworker and I were talking about the gradually rising number of COVID-19 cases in Connecticut with increasing worry. The news predicted that New York city and California would be the epicenter of this pandemic in the US or even in the world. Cases in other countries were soaring.
I was worried, but chatting with my friends in China made me feel better. We were encouraging each other by saying we are still young and should be fine as long as we wear a mask all the time outside our homes. There was a bias about masks at the beginning of the pandemic. Researchers I know believed we should wear masks to protect ourselves, but at the same time there was a shortage of masks. Personal protective equipment (PPE) was prioritized for frontier workers. It was a chaos back then. Fear was everywhere, but real hope is finally here as vaccines are being rolled out in the US and the world and hospitalization rate keeps going down. But – as for many of us – 2020 became for me an unforgettable year.
Last year, one day, the lab manager of our Center sent all of us an email stating that nobody was allowed to come to the lab after March 16th. According to university quarantine guidelines, any non-critical experiments should therefore be suspended. All the postdocs and students became anxious and tried to wrap up their experiments as quickly as possible. Unfortunately, the project I had been working on to study metabolism on a kinase deficient mouse for 6 months was on temporary hold.
After a few days into the lockdown, our University began to allow critical personnel or safety officers of every lab to go back. I was one of them. My job was to check the lab and maintain ongoing mouse colonies on a daily basis. I tried to finish up my daily tasks as quickly as possible to minimize the risk of being exposed to the coronavirus.
At the same time, my principal investigator (PI) was working on a proposal to work with COVID-19 and got approval to do so. This meant that everyone in our lab now was allowed to work at site, despite the ongoing lockdown. My PI was very excited and asked if I was willing to work on this project as well. I accepted the offer right away because I thought it was an honor to be able to contribute to important COVID-19 research during this critical period in time. What if our work could contribute to gain a better understanding of this novel virus and help people?
My job was to cytospin the peripheral blood mononuclear cells (PBMC), which were already isolated by two seniors in our collaborating lab. After spinning was done, I would make slides for staining with antibodies of our interests. In this new exciting but challenging assignment, I made new friends in the lab and got to know another PI who not only did amazing jobs in science and clinics but also became as a good mentor.
More excitement than fear
The new experience made me both excited and scared. I was excited because the project was both stimulating and meaningful as I could make some contribution to help people during this crucial period in time.
At the same time, I felt lucky, since as critical personnel I could visit the lab regardless of quarantine policy and also since our lab was approved for doing experiments on COVID-19. As a result, my mouse project would not be as affected as I first feared. Nevertheless, at the same time I was worried of the risk of exposure because of the close contact with patient samples. To make matters worse, only a few people deemed critical to each lab were working on site. There were not even 10 people in the whole working area where they used to have about 15 labs working together in this open space. But now it was even harder to get help if there were problems with machine usage or technical protocols. Despite these difficulties, I still felt excited.
Excitement turned into fear
After a few days working almost alone in an empty area in the lab, I started to feel a bit lonely and kind of depressed. While I was working on my bench, it was so quiet and the motion lights shut off constantly. It felt almost like a haunted house—a quiet deserted lab provides a creepy feeling of some kind of disaster or horror movie. I began to regret the decision that I accepted this job to work on such dangerous biohazard materials.
The worst part was that nobody even knew when the samples would arrive. At the same time the project demanded a lot of administrative burden and many people involved. We needed consent from patients and physicians, nurses, researchers, hospital administrators were all involved in this whole process. Once all the process in the hospital was done, we would get the samples and have to do gradient centrifuge within 24 hours. The seniors of the collaborative lab texted me if they had samples that day and when they were supposed to arrive. There was no regular work pattern and as a result I couldn’t plan my mouse work very well in advance. To make matters worse, the cryostat and autoclave facilities were broken, and engineers were not allowed to enter campus during lockdown. Some facility services were suspended as well. Part of my non-COVID-19 project was, to some extent, suspended too, which made me frustrated and anxious.
I used to have colleagues around to talk to, like peer support. But now, looking around, I was working on my own. If I ran into issues like if we had certain chemical reagents and where they were or how to perform certain procedures, I had to text, call or email instead of just talking to them directly. It was not a direct contact anymore and in order to follow social distancing it was hard to get hands-on mentorship.
Conquered my fear and started to gain confidence and independence
After all, I figured that being independent now is quite imperative. I used to believe being independent only refers to developing ideas, designing experiments, starting one’s own lab, etc. But this quarantine policy now gives independence a novel and advanced definition, because I have a very clear idea that if I cannot work on my own, nobody is able to help! People cannot offer their help like before.
Cooperation is always endorsed, but now we must practice social distancing, the ability of being independent seems to be more dominant.
The most lesson I learnt from this pandemic is that always getting yourself prepared for the worst condition because you’ll never know what will happen the next day.
1. Helena Barroca, Cytospin Technique, https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-33286-4_857
2. Charlotte R. Kleiveland, Chapter 15 Peripheral Blood Mononuclear Cells, The Impact of Food Bioactives on Health.